This is the fourth of four loosely related posts that can be read in sequence or in isolation.
A year ago, the Twitter-based hive mind for low-energy construction that I rely on for information and insight, shared news of a book.
On the website Treehugger, The New Carbon Architecture was described as:
an important book, carefully crafted to explain the essentials of some very complicated and controversial ideas in a very readable, even entertaining form that is accessible to anyone.
Based on that description, it sounded like everything that a lot of writing in the construction industry usually isn’t. And I include my own writing in that statement.
The book is accessible, and the introduction in particular expertly and entertainingly captures the position we find ourselves in as a planet. I just wish more people who work in and around construction would be interested enough to read it, when the truth is many simply aren’t interested enough in how we build, or what we build with, to go on to read the chapters about concrete, straw and plastic.
The optimism communicated by much of the book is infectious. Its compelling arguments for a brighter future almost help you to forget chapter one’s alarming summary of how it will take nothing less than significant action to avoid reaching a tipping point for the climate in 20 or 30 years.
Two or three decades! If I’m writing about anxiety then there’s a reason this post is the culmination: because I am fucking terrified of the future.
Terrified of the social and meteorological climate I could have to grow old in - I won’t have reached the current state retirement age in three decades - and that, by extension, future generations will inherit from us. Terrified of the short-term political will, and self-interest of corporations, that perpetually obstructs any long-term thinking about mitigating our impact on our planet.
In short, I feel overwhelmed. And, for whatever reason, that means I tend toward a pessimistic outlook.
I worry about little things, like the effect of wood burning stoves and log fires in country pubs, and their effect on indoor air quality. I worry about big things, like the scale of population - how seven-and-a-half billion people live on the planet now, and how projections estimate in the region of nine billion will do so by 2040.
I can’t reconcile the scale of construction going on every day, whether it’s the sky-scraping towers in cities or the vast blandness of volume housing developments across our towns and villages, with the knowledge that the majority of it is being done to a minimum standard motivated mainly by profit.
Take housing: for all that they tick every compliance-related box on paper, most new houses need an energy-efficiency retrofit the moment they are completed. That’s utterly insane, especially when the know-how is readily available to build them in a way that would mean occupants need never be tied to high energy costs again.
With this despair at the current state of things, it’s perhaps little wonder that I have a fascination for seeing these themes expressed to an extreme in popular culture and entertainment.
Like Godzilla, the city-trampling monster, who was originally conceived as an allegory for nuclear weapons, but more recently has been envisaged as the pinnacle of nature and a balance-restoring force that is uncontrollable by humans. Or Thanos, the primary antagonist of Avengers: Infinity War, a genocidal super-villain who genuinely believes his misguided will to ‘save’ planets by halving their populations is doing the resource-depleted universe a favour.
Yes, I know: it’s ridiculous to think these films somehow prove I’m right to worry! But that’s what worrying about the future does, even when knowing that worrying is about as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.
Back in the real world, and faced with the less apocalyptic and more optimistic attitude of The New Carbon Architecture, there are so many paths along which to pursue a brighter future, so many potential lines of enquiry, that a wholly different sense of overwhelm sets in.
Where do I start in enacting anything I’ve learned about and been inspired by? How and where do I direct my energies to make a difference?
The first post of this ‘series’ was about challenging myself to speak up more. Not in an obnoxious way, occupying a world of black-and-white polemics, but in a spirit of communicating my passions better and being more engaged with - as well as hopefully engaging about! - issues for which I have a strength of feeling.
Previous blog posts have always been about topics that interest me: building design and construction, the way we live and use our buildings. But rarely have I explained why they interest me, or told the stories that led to me wanting to share it in the first place.
Essentially, I’m not sure that anybody reading this blog actually knows what I stand for.
The people closest to me don’t know what I stand for, so I can hardly expect first-time website visitors to have a better idea. Not that long ago, I talked to my Mum about the Passivhaus construction standard and how it delivers more comfortable buildings. I must have enthused about it, because she remarked about how passionately I spoke for it.
It’s time, then, to give some shape to what I believe in and would like to commit to. Doing so might combat the feeling of overwhelm and the curse of inaction, and give something against which to assess whether I have made a positive impact in my own way.
I don’t currently own my own home, but would like to within the next few years and with the intention of doing a wholesale renovation to make an existing property as energy efficient, comfortable and ‘future proof’ as possible - what is known as a ‘deep retrofit’.
(How to pay for such a project, of course, is a whole other topic for discussion…)
Creating a home with some resilience to the future climate might ease my concerns about an uncertain old age. Who knows what I will go on to achieve in life, but rather than worrying about whether I’m ‘being successful enough’ compared to others, I’d like to feel satisfied at leaving such a property as a legacy of sorts, for the next generation to benefit from as well.
A retrofit project of my own could contribute to the expanding knowledge base, used to work on solutions for delivering retrofit at the scale the country so desperately needs. At the same time, so many people and resources inspire my work and my personal beliefs every day, so I’ll thank them more, and share their ideas more to help spread their messages.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to support my clients by writing in a way that communicates climate change, construction quality and other issues as accurately and objectively as I’m able.
I can’t promise I won’t still fly to places like Chicago to enjoy classic American breakfasts, but day-to-day I walk or use public transport whenever possible and aim to prioritise quality over quantity to avoid unnecessary consumption and waste. So I’ll keep living those values and stand up for them as often as possible.
Never stop learning about the way buildings work, so even if I’m not at the cutting edge of research and practical experience, I can be a conduit for the knowledge I gain and further disseminate the ideas of others. Also, apply the same approach to how the world works! Rather than feeling despair at things I can’t control, research and understand why they are the way they are.
Enacting these items will, I hope, enable me to become a better communicator and advocate. Maybe I’ll find the confidence to no longer feel like an outsider, under-qualified to be part of the community I respect and admire. Maybe I’ll finally participate actively, learning and contributing alike, in the name of shaping a less overwhelming, less terrifying future.